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2009 Squeaks By

Skepticism remains at local level

WASHINGTON: Lawmakers have agreed to shut off analog broadcast television transmissions in 2009, not on New Year's Eve nor after March Madness, but on Feb. 17--the 51st anniversary of the canonization of Clare of Assisi as the patron saint of television.

The 2009 provision was included in S.1932, a hotly contested bill that slashed federal spending by $40 billion over the next five years. The bill squeaked by the Senate four days before Christmas on a vote of 51-50, with Vice President Dick Cheney abbreviating a trip to the Middle East to return and cast the deciding vote.

The bill, ultimately named the "Work, Marriage, and Family Promotion Reconciliation Act of 2005," also included up to $1.5 billion for the set-top converters that would allow analog-only TV sets to process digital signals.

Lawmakers spent the last year trying to set a new analog end date, since the original--Dec. 31, 2006--appeared increasingly unrealistic as it got closer. For all the political Sturm und Drang over setting the new deadline, it generated a resounding shrug outside of Washington, D.C.

WHAT HARD DATE?

"People ask... we tell them there's supposed to be a deadline, but we don't know when it is because they've pushed it back so many times," said James Hillis of Ezra's Home Store in Ashland, Ohio, a community of about 22,000.

Hillis said Ezra's sells more analog than digital TV sets "by far," and that the store sells about five outdoor mast antennas per month for over-the-air TV reception.

The demand for outdoor masts is more like 50 per month at Fairfax Antennas in Alexandria, Va., where Dave Thompson manages the office. He said over-the-air DTV was driving much of the sales because the two available DBS providers were not yet offering local channels in the area.

"We've only been doing DirecTV installs since Monday," Dec. 19, he said, "so how much that will cut in, we don't know." As for the analog shutdown, Thompson said, "Most people are not concerned about the deadline because they know it will just be pushed back again."

Charlie Jele, owner of Just TV Service in Greenville, S.C., said that no one in his community had a clue that the government intended to shut down the nation's analog TV broadcast system. Jele is strictly in repairs, and he estimated that 90 percent of his business involved fixing analog TVs, because that's what retailers are moving.

"About 90 percent of TVs they're selling as far as big screens are digital, but 27 inches and down, they're still analog," he said. "There's a lot of people out there that are going to be mad when their TVs don't work anymore... but the deadline keeps getting pushed back." Like Just TV, ITR Electronics in Indianapolis is also a repairs-only shop, where Sherry Banks said folks had "heard rumors" of the impending analog shutdown.

"People come in and ask us all the time, 'should we get this repaired?' There are so many sets out there that are analog, I don't see how they're going do that. It remains to be seen if it's going to happen," she said.

Banks was technically correct at TV Technology press time.

That's because even though the Senate passed S.1932, Senate Democrats successfully pulled a parliamentary maneuver that required another House vote before the bill went to the President's desk. On the day of the Senate vote, many House members had already gone home for the holidays, including Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, who was hospitalized for a heart attack just days earlier. Reuters reported that there were no plans to call House members back.

Once Congress is able to fully ratify the hard shutoff date, Dick Wiley believes it will stick. An FCC chairman in the late '70s and now a senior partner at Wiley, Rein & Fielding in Washington, D.C., Wiley said it will work as long as people are informed.

"Consumer education is absolutely the key to making this work, or we'll be back at this again Christmas, 2008," he said.

Wiley said a market-by-market shutdown would be unlikely because the analog broadcast spectrum likely will be on the auction block roughly a year before the end date.

"There could be extensions, but market-by-market would be very confusing," he said.

NO DOWNCONVERTING

The final version of DTV legislation included a nice holiday gift for David Rehr, the new president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters. It was conversely a lump of coal for Kyle McSlarrow, chief of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.

According to the NAB, the bill disallowed cable operators from headend downconversion, i.e, from taking standard- or hi-def digital broadcast signals and converting them all to analog at headends. McSlarrow argued that headend downconversion was imperative because about 45 million of the nation's 68 million cable subscribers have analog service, many with no set-top box of any sort.

Without headend conversion, all of those households would need a digital set-top box, potentially costing the cable industry more than $1 billion. Headend conversion was originally allowed in the House DTV bill, but the provision was kiboshed in conference. McSlarrow argued in the House that without headend downconversion, analog cable subscribers should also be eligible for government set-top converter money. It remains to be determined who will be eligible for the set-top subsidy.

Rehr, who took the helm of the NAB in early December, also issued a carefully worded response that reflected a sentiment of his predecessor Eddie Fritts--that nothing is ever final in Washington politics:

"As we look forward to 2006, NAB will work with Congress to ensure that cable operators not be permitted to block consumer access to the full benefits of digital and high-definition television."